The title character in “Diane” is a giver, a doer — one of those small-town ladies always ready with a casserole, at a hospital bedside, ladling out supper in a soup kitchen. She has her own crosses to bear, but helping other people is her salvation. Or maybe it’s her drug.
As played with subtle, probing empathy by Mary Kay Place in Kent Jones’s quietly devastating drama, Diane is an average woman, with fairly average long-ago sins. Coming to terms with those sins late in life is the movie’s business. The movie has commonalities with “Manchester by the Sea” — like that film, “Diane” unfolds in a wintry Western Massachusetts (although it was shot near Kingston, N.Y.), and like that film it centers on a character who seems to have been forgiven by everybody but herself.
If anything, though, “Diane” is more muted, more discreet in its revelations — more attuned to the way women push sorrow down while men wrestle with it in public. Some moviegoers may find that enough to warn them far away. The more adventurous or open-hearted may step into this film and find a kind of translucent everyday poetry.
When the film opens, Diane’s waking hours are filled with small good works: Visiting a beloved cancer-ridden cousin (Deirdre O’Connell, peppery and wise), the soup kitchen where she commiserates with long-time acquaintances down on their luck in a bum economy. She has a grown son, Brian (Jake Lacy of “Obvious Child”), who’s supposedly kicked his heroin addiction but who isn’t fooling anyone, least of all his mother.
The scenes between these two are often hard to watch with their push-pull of denial, fury, brute mother-love. One of the thematic through-lines of this movie is aloneness: Brian begs his mother to “leave me be” so he can right himself on his own; later, after he has done so with surprising results, Diane will ask the same of him. It’s noted by more than one person that we leave this world on our own, so you’d better connect while you can. And Diane herself has drawn a large, invisible circle around her life, one that keeps loved ones at a distance and that is filled, we slowly realize, with shame.
Jones is a longtime, high-ranking member of the international company of cineastes: He has been a film critic, a programmer for the Film Society at Lincoln Center, Martin Scorsese’s archivist, and the director of the 2015 documentary “Hitchcock/Truffaut.” He makes his fiction film debut here with a debt to the character-driven cinema of other countries, a delicate filmmaking touch, and a rock-solid faith in his audience. He knows we’ll notice the details of Diane’s life — the copy of Emily Dickinson poems on her bedside table; the late husband she never mentions; the wedding ring that remains guiltily on.
“Diane” is, among other things, a film about women — older women, especially — getting through the daily wreckage of life with weariness and grace. There are scenes of communal gathering that can take your breath away, with Diane’s friends and relatives played by such welcome faces as Estelle Parsons (as Diane’s indomitable aunt), Andrea Martin (as an upbeat old friend), Glynnis O’Connor, Joyce Van Patten, and a dryly hilarious Phyllis Somerville as one of those ancient battle-ax relations who’ll keep smoking until it kills her.
Within this world — as recognizable to you or me as snow drifting across a rural highway — Place’s performance anchors itself with endurance and regret. Jones has offered a rare gift to an underrated, too-little-seen actress, and the gift is ours as well. “Diane” builds to moments small and large, occasionally skipping across the years with abruptness or diverting into the title character’s dreams and memories. It ends rather daringly. But Jones also knows to leave well enough alone, as in a long, wordless sequence in which Diane goes to a local roadhouse and drinks herself into looking her sorrows in the eye, punching up oldies on the jukebox as a form of penance. (That live version of Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” has never sounded so mocking.)
It’s key to the movie that she’s not alone in this scene, even if she thinks she is, and that a web of community surrounds her with concern and love. Without making a big deal about it, “Diane” explores questions of faith, but it ultimately finds greater spiritual meaning among the living. I found myself wishing I could show it to Dianes I have known; you may, too. It’s less a movie than a familiar home on a country road at dusk, its windows lit up in welcome. Come in, it says. You’re never as alone as you think.
Written and directed by Kent Jones. Starring Mary Kay Place, Jake Lacy, Estelle Parsons, Andrea Martin, Deirdre O’Connell. At Kendall Square. 95 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: language, drug use).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.